It’s truly a good time for Disney. Almost all of their major releases over the past few years have been successful commercially and critically – especially if you remember that they own Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm. In light of their subsidiaries successes, Disney-proper sometimes seems overshadowed by such huge hits as Inside Out, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and really anything the Cinema Gods at Marvel can create. But fresh off the heels of their last smash hit, the beautifully animated and whimsical Zootopia, Disney has released their newest live action film The Jungle Book.
And they delivered! The Jungle Book is a gorgeous movie. Seriously, the whole time I found myself gawking at some of the best CGI this side of Avatar (eat your heart out, Jurassic World) and some of the most natural-looking sets I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I assumed they were filming on location, but the end of the film says “Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles.” Very convincing, I was legitimately shocked to see that. The whole time, even in the slower parts, the masterful aesthetic of the film engrosses you in the adventure and the visual style definitely adds to the immersion.
Now, great visuals are one thing, but what about substance? Well…it’s The Jungle Book alright. If you liked the original Disney film, you’ll probably like this one. If plot holes and odd transitions bother you, you might want to skip it. As with the original, a lot of the film plays out like smaller vignettes or episodes – some of which are much more connected to the larger “story” than others. While the plot and some characters’ motivations may be a bit scrambled (especially Shere Khan the tiger), The Jungle Book is an adventure film and in that vein it is incredibly strong. By the end of this movie, I felt like I had gone on an epic fantasy journey through the jungles of India. It is certainly not short on wonder and excitement.
To add even more to the adventure, The Jungle Book sports a pretty stellar cast. Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba demonstrate their usual near-perfect command of their craft in every scene as Bagheera and Shere Khan, respectively, but the surprise scene stealers are the two most peculiar-sounding choices. Bill Murray as Baloo the bear and Christopher Walken as King Louie the gigantopithecus (not orangutan this time, since orangutans are not native to India) are an absolute blast. Strangely enough, they are pretty much the perfect fit for their respective characters and really just seem to be playing themselves for the most part – just as animals. Bear Murray, anyone? Gigantopithecus Walken? No, that doesn’t really work…whatever, they’re great! Newcomer Neel Sethi plays Mowgli and does a decent job. He’s not great, but certainly better than many child actors. Plus, given the amount of time that he spent pretending to interact with animals that weren’t really there, it was an admirable effort.
Sadly not all the casting works. Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the snake and Giancarlo Esposito as Akela were choices that sound pretty good on paper, but ultimately come off as weak and less believable in the final film. What’s strange is that two powerhouse actors who have both played very strong, commanding characters in the past come off as feeble and almost indifferent here. Much like Disney’s earlier casting misstep a few years back with Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West in Oz: The Great and Powerful, we see good actors somehow falling short in a role simply because they’re not intimidating enough. How or why this happened remains a mystery (especially if you’ve seen Breaking Bad…Giancarlo Esposito plays one of the greatest hyper-intimidating villains of all-time).
Finally, I want to touch on one scene in particular that was really the only part felt horribly out of place. It’s not really a spoiler, but if you’re worried just skip this paragraph. The original Disney Jungle Book film was a musical but the 2016 version is not, save for two brief scenes: Baloo and Mowgli singing “The Bear Necessities” while floating down a river and King Louie singing “I Wan’na Be Like You.” The former works just fine since it’s a playful scene of two children-at-heart minding their own business and enjoying their day. The latter was horrendous. Have you ever seen the movie version of Hairspray? They kind of play it off as a joke in there that neither John Travolta nor Christopher Walken are great singers, but they play a happy married couple who don’t care – they love each other and that’s enough. It’s cute, it’s funny, it works. As King Louie, Walken has to sing seriously, and it was as bad an idea as it sounds. On top of that, the song just kind of comes out of nowhere with very little spectacle and truly has no reason to justify its existence inside the film. From an out-of-story perspective, I suspect it was only wedged in for nostalgia’s sake – being that “Bear Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” are arguably the most memorable songs from the original animated film. Apart from that, just about everything in the film works – even the scenes that cause major plot holes.
The Jungle Book is not a perfect film. In fact, it’s probably just as flawed as the original. But what it lacks in logical execution it more than makes up for with a charming cast, a truly beautiful visual style, and an epic adventure well-worth the price of admission. Clearly Jon Favreau and the rest of the creative team had a strong passion for this story and put a lot of heart and effort into making the best film they could. I would definitely recommend it for kids-at-heart of all ages.
What did you think of Disney’s The Jungle Book? Let us know in the comments below!
Check out the trailer here:
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